Apr 082012

pinch-beck       noun   1. An alloy of zinc and copper used as imitation gold.     2. A cheap imitation.

                         adjective   1. Made of pinchbeck.    2. Imitation; spurious.


It all seems a bit unfair on Christopher Pinchbeck, the man who gave his name to a type of brass (an alloy of three parts zinc, four parts copper) used in the trade as a substitute for gold. As such his name has become synonymous with something cheap and worthless, a fake, but back in the 1700’s it was seen as a useful way of making cheaper ‘costume jewellery’ – more appropriate for taking on journeys. It filled a need – if you were travelling on roads where highwaymen were a risk, why take your finest jewellery with you when indistinguishable substitutes would serve your purpose?

Christopher Pinchbeck had been born in Clerkenwell but there is some doubt about the year. Some records suggest he was born in 1662 but his memorial plaque makes him eight years younger! Little is known about his early years but there is every chance that he studied on the continent, where there was a long tradition of musical automata.

Longcase clock by Christopher Pinchbeck

He ‘burst onto the scene’ in London when he was already in his forties, charging the astronomic fee of 700 guineas for one of his fancy instruments (per the London Courant, 1716). He moved to 33 John’s Lane, Clerkenwell and made watches and clocks, specialising in incredibly ornate and complicated astronomical instruments. With these he achieved considerable fame. The records describe how he ‘finished a fine musical clock, said to be a most exquisite piece of workmanship, and worth about fifteen hundred pounds and which is to be sent over to ye King of France ‘(Louis XIV). He also sent a ‘fine organ to ye Great Mogul, worth three hundred pounds.’

Plaque at 33 John's Lane

He also made more down-market trinkets and baubles from the eponymous alloy, holding a stall at Bartholomew Fair on at least one occasion. He made the watch cases out of Pinchbeck, thereby bringing the price down considerably, and he sold them at places like Southwark Fair. There was no attempt at deception: he described them as being ‘chased in so curious a manner as not to be distinguished by the nicest eye from real gold’. Indeed it is quite possible that when Richard Hall describes buying a ‘metal watch’ for each of his sons he was in fact buying Pinchbeck time-pieces rather than gold equivalents. The word only became a pejorative term in subsequent years when unscrupulous traders manufactured inferior quality products and passed them off as gold.

Whereas his younger son Edward took over the family business when his father died (and apparently was the one entrusted with the secret of the Pinchbeck alloy), the elder son (also called Christopher) went out on his own and traded as a clockmaker from a shop in Cockspur Lane. He became a particular favourite of the Court and was known as ‘Clockmaker to the King’.

In 1762 he devised a self-acting pneumatic brake for preventing accidents to the men employed in working wheel cranes, for which the Society of Arts awarded him a gold medal.

In 1766 he apparently procured for George III the very first pocket watch made with a compensation curb, from Ferdinhand Rerthoud. In 1781 he was elected as an Honorary Freeman of the Clockmakers’ Company, and later went on to become President of the Smeaton Society (then known as the Society of Engineers). Describing himself as a ‘toymaker and mechanician’ he invented various items such as the self-extinguishing candle stick. He took out three patents and in addition he also supplied a complicated four-sided astronomical clock to George III in a case made by Sir William Chambers. This was in 1765. It is still in the Music Room at Buckingham Palace, along with a very similar one made by Fardley Norton.

Christopher (the younger) died at Cockspur Street in 1783 at the age of 73 and is buried at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields. And for more modern watch aficionados, the Pinchbeck name is still carried on by the watchmaking company of Harold Pinchbeck (see http://www.haroldpinchbeck.co.uk/)

And why this post on Pinchbeck? Because tomorrow’s blog is about the Pantopticon, a remarkable piece of automata made by him, and which my ancestor Richard Hall went to see in the 1770’s.

  2 Responses to “Christopher Pinchbeck, a much-maligned jeweller and clock maker.”


    Excellent, thank you for this post! I wonder, was the Regency term ‘Bartholomew Baby’ for someone overdressed and tawdry [ which word itself derives from the fairings of St Audrey’s fair] partly at least because such fellows would likely have pinchbeck watches and fobs if the sale of them at St Bartholomew’s fair was famous? just something I wondered in passing.


      I thought the term “Bartholomew Baby” merely referred to the dolls, often overdressed in gawdy materials which were of poor quality & were offered for sale at markets such as Bartholomew Market. I dont think Pinchbeck exhibited there often enough to have contributed – other than as part of the creation of a reputation for goods of inferior quality

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